Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Homelessness, affordable housing – Drive, ABC Perth

RUSSELL WOOLF: Brendan O’Connor is the ALP’s Federal Member for Gorton. He turned 50 on the second of March and three days later was sworn in as Minister for Small Business, Housing and Homelessness, therefore entering Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Cabinet for the first time and he joins us on Drive this afternoon.

Minister, it’s good to be talking to you.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yeah, thanks for the very unique introduction. I’m happy to be here.

RUSSELL WOOLF: I’ve never known as many homeless people in our city as I’ve seen today. Why can’t we fix that?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: It’s a very complex issue. It sounds easy. You can find a roof for people, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have them homeless the next day. And that’s the reason why in 2008 we made it a national priority to ensure that we would look at a series of ways we can help people who are either homeless or at the risk of homeless and that’s why we, you know, we provided an extra $5 billion working with States and Governments and not for profits.

But I think we still haven’t got to the – I don’t think we’ve worked through all of the solutions. I’m happy to say there are some demonstrable changes and improvements but there’s a long way to go.

RUSSELL WOOLF: I’m not really deeply familiar with the system but I guess that mental health and homelessness has a link and I can understand that, but I would have thought that pure economics and homelessness has a link today where it didn’t, you know, 20 years ago?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, I think you’ll find that there’s always been some issues, economic causes of homelessness, but you’re right. The first thing and most noticeable thing is drug and alcohol dependency, I guess the archetypal homeless person is a sort of middle-aged man, brown paper bag, sleeping under a bridge but that example, whilst of course they exist and we need to help them any way we can, is not really now the growing trend.

It’s not the growing proportion of people that are homeless. In this country we’re seeing for example increasingly more women, more children. I’ll give you – I’ll cite a pretty alarming example; 90,000 Australians accessed services for homeless between July and September last year. Nearly one in five of those were children under the age of ten, usually accompanied by their mother.

You’ve got mums and kids sleeping in cars, so you’re seeing the classic case of the drug and alcohol dependant person or the women fleeing domestic violence. They’re still crisis issues that need decent and appropriate responses, but we’re now seeing as you’ve said people dealing with affordability, housing affordability issues, cost of living issues and we need to attend to that.

And that’s why much of the resources we put in in the housing sector has been going to cut the market rental costs for people from low income backgrounds, low income situations I should say and also reduce the market price for sales of houses. So we’ve set up a number of initiatives with developers and with – and we, you know – and that’s a sort of huge commonwealth big spend of $20 billion.

But we’ve still got to get behind some of the root causes and as I say, we’re still learning.

RUSSELL WOOLF: It breaks everyone’s heart, you know, to walk down the street. You walk down Murray Street on the, you know, during a work day and you’ll pass four or five people that are sitting with signs scrawled asking for help, saying they’ve just found themselves in a bit of a tough time.

You know, I can remember growing up that you might see one person every few weeks, but they’re – the street’s literally are peppered now with people that have got heartbreaking stories. I just can’t believe we live in a society where we can allow that to happen.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well there’s no – there’s literally no excuse. We’re one of the wealthiest nations on earth. I think your point earlier is very pertinent, that there is a causal link between mental illness and homelessness and I think some of the decisions made – I’m not blaming – I’m not seeking to blame anyone here, either political parties or not, but I’m saying decisions that were made by Governments, possibly of all persuasions across the country to do – at the State level, to de-institutionalise people in – may have not been thought through because it left a lot of people homeless.

So we are – I’m working very closely with Mark Butler, the Minister for Mental Health, about how we can provide support for them and how we can find more affordable accommodation and I’m working with really some extraordinarily and passionate and compassionate people in the not for profit organisations like Mission Australia, Brothers of Saint Laurence, working with them about how we can – you know, two things by 2020; one is cut the rate of homelessness by half.

We want that measured and we want to place the pressure on ourselves to deliver that and the second is to provide every person who sleeps rough a roof over their head if they choose to take it. Now we’ve got some way to go and the ABS figures later this year will give us a stare as to how we’re trending and progressing, but already I’m seeing some positive signs in talking to people around the country – notwithstanding the observations you’ve made, that still too many people are sleeping rough in Perth and in other parts of Australia.

RUSSELL WOOLF: My guest on Drive is Minister Brendan O’Connor. He is the Minister for Small Business, Housing and Homelessness. You’re listening to 720 ABC Perth and can I just say hello to Evie who I know listens to the program and normally sends in a text message. I would have thought I might have heard from her by now, but she’s homeless, doing it tough on the streets and still listens to the wireless and takes the time to send some thoughts through, so I hope tonight Evie that you’re okay.

Yesterday on Geoff Hutchison’s morning program here, Ian Carter, the Chief Executive Officer of Anglicare Minister talked about the difficulty Perth families are having in finding affordable housing. They looked at 3500 private rental listings across WA over one day, just in the one day and found that there were only 12 of those that were affordable for people on minimum wage.

This is a little of what he had to say. I’d love you to listen to it so we can talk about his comments.

IAN CARTER: When you look at basically nothing being affordable in the Perth metropolitan area for people on low and fixed incomes, it means that the only stuff that’s available is in Albany and Mount Barker and the southwest kind of areas. It means that Perth now is not a place for people on lower and fixed incomes to be able to maintain themselves.

It means if they do try and maintain themselves with significant costs in housing, some of those choices are going to impact long term, not only on that family but on our – us as a community, because there are going to be educational, training and other outcome relationship breakdown which is going to impact on us.

We need to understand this is I think the perfect storm. The last decade has created a perfect storm of a lack of investment over the last two decades in social housing in this State, some issues around planning and other regulations and probably building the McMansions kind of stuff.

We’re building four bedroom, two bathroom homes when the real demand in the marketplace is for one and two bedroom homes.

RUSSELL WOOLF: That’s the CEO of Anglicare, Ian Carter. You’re listening to Drive and Minister Brendan Connor is my guest – O’Connor I’m sorry – my guest this afternoon on 720. It’s hard to come up with a quick fix overnight, you know, but I mean he’s got a point hasn’t he, that if we don’t do something and get it right quite quickly, the ripple on effect of this is going to impact in decades to come?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That’s right. Look, firstly can I say Russell that I welcome the report by Anglicare and their concern for low income working people and people who rely on Government income support. That report points clearly to what most people already know and the situation as you’ve already indicated is just too many people face – and the report recognises that the Government has set record highs on investment and housing infrastructure and I thank them for acknowledging that.

But we know we’ve got a long way to go. There’s just a couple of things we’re doing Russell in WA to relieve the housing affordability challenge and the stress placed on people. We’ve – we have under the Social Housing Initiative, we have completed 285 of what are 1800 homes set to be constructed here and that’s really to provide social housing for people in need.

We’ve got 4800 homes that we’re building under what’s called the National Rental Assistance Scheme and what that is a partnership between the commonwealth and the developers and others, to build 4800 homes and provide rental costs of less than – 80 per cent or less of the market rent.

So we’re allowing low income earners to get into houses on lower rentals that they’d ordinarily have to pay. Why is that so important? Because it’s that group of people, that group of Australians that are under housing stress and it leads to the greater likelihood of them being homeless and what we have to do, as you said – and I agree with you here, is we’ve got to intervene early and we’ve got to break the cycle.

And the way you do that is invest in afford-, in housing affordability initiatives and we’ve done that. Now much of the investment is yet to be realised in housing construction. This takes some time. Some of these decisions were made in ’08, 2008, 2009, but what we’re seeing now is the very good benefits; for example, we’ll have overwhelmingly – the overwhelming number of those 4800 built by the end of 2014, So that will provide some relief and prevent people needing a home over their – a roof over their head.

RUSSELL WOOLF: My guest is Minister Brendan O’Connor, it’s just three minutes away from news on Drive this afternoon and the Minister is in Perth.  Today he was in Fremantle, Rockingham.  He visited a lot of small businesses, went to the University of Western Australia, tomorrow, a breakfast with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  Can we talk about the Federal political scene just at the moment?


RUSSELL WOOLF: It’s disturbing to look at.  I don’t know what it’s like when you are on the inside looking out the way that you are.  You can understand that people are fed up with what we are seeing in Australian politics.  There was our leaders that seemed to be more concerned with keeping power and doing it by doing deals with people that frankly they clearly don’t like.  It leaves us cold, does it leave you cold?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Look, it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances where people are focused on one or two individuals and allegations that are being made against them.  This of course is a fundamental distraction.  I mean what we should be talking about of course today is the fact that the Government has created the environment which allowed the Reserve Bank to make a decision…

RUSSELL WOOLF: And I promise you, we did it, just before we spoke to you, we spent about eight minutes on it and it’s been big news today but I just wonder, I know it’s about people that are awaiting charges and all that sort of business, but clearly doing a deal that you did with Peter Slipper and effectively turning him from a Liberal to a Labor politician was one to maintain your position of power that was done without thinking about the impact on the Australian economy.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yeah, look I think you have taken a step too far there.  Firstly we did not turn him into a Labor politician.  In fact he was an independent speaker and no member of the gallery in Canberra would suggest he was acting anything other than impartial as the speaker.  In fact he was being lorded as a very strong speaker, having thrown out the number of Labor members including senior members of government when he believed we did the wrong thing.

So he certainly was not in our pocket.  He made a decision.  He has acted in that role very well, but there are serious allegations made against him and those allegations have to be resolved and the Prime Minister has made that very clear.

RUSSELL WOOLF: Are you happy with the state of politics?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well, of course I’m not happy with the major distractions and the delays that arises from sort of these issues where we can’t focus on, as I say, the really important issues that matter through to everyday Australians who are worried about cost of living issues.  So of course, they don’t just remember…

RUSSELL WOOLF: I’ve only got ten seconds to go sorry Minister.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: No, that’s alright.  I mean Tony Abbott was a beneficiary of Mr Slipper and now he is not.  He wants to…

RUSSELL WOOLF: And I make the accusation to all leaders, I don’t think it’s about party politics.  It’s good to talk to you.  Thank you for being with us on Drive.


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